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Review: In ‘Too Heavy for Your Pocket,’ Who Can Afford Civil Rights?

What’s more, Tony (Hampton Fluker) is a bit of a tomcat and Sally-Mae (Nneka Okafor) the kind of put-upon priss who says “You know I don’t take no ugly words” when someone is coarse in her presence. Watching them, it’s hard not to think of Walter Lee and Ruth Younger in the ur-“Mama on the couch” play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” whose dynamic is much the same.

But the Carters’ friends Bowzie and Evelyn Brandon (Brandon Gill and Eboni Flowers) introduce a different, less predictable note. Evelyn, a singer, has been the breadwinner in their marriage while Bowzie, a dreamer, sorts himself out. This he appears to have done when he wins a full-tuition scholarship to Fisk, the prominent black university also in Nashville.

Photo

From left: Eboni Flowers, Nneka Okafor, Hampton Fluker and Brandon Gill in “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” at Roundabout Underground.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The two couples are not, however, urban grown-ups like the Youngers. Bowzie is 20 and, compared with most other students at Fisk, poor, rural and unsophisticated. (Tony calls him, affectionately but pointedly, a “country Negro.”) As he begins to doubt whether he fits in as a student, he is drawn to a cause in which his background matters less: the civil rights movement recruiting on campus. Eventually the play pushes him to a crossroads, with personal advancement pointing one way and the Freedom Rides then being organized pointing another.

I wasn’t convinced by this either-or dilemma, but the authorial manipulation that forces Bowzie’s hand may be worth it. “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” dramatizes questions of class difference within the black community that rarely get broached onstage. To his wife and best pal, who have never known a black college man, the possibility that Bowzie might renege on Fisk seems insane, almost traitorous. Only Sally-Mae, from a slightly more “saddidy” background, can see value in a choice that feeds the soul and the future instead of the cash box today.

Many American ethnic groups have struggled to block images of themselves that are less than uplifting, and many American playwrights representing those groups have struggled to circumvent that impulse. If they didn’t, we would not have “A Raisin in the Sun” in the first place — or, for that matter, “Awake and Sing” or “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or anything by August Wilson. The best playwrights are snitches: They divulge and betray. Or, let us say, their loyalties lie beyond the pieties of clan.

That’s a good thing, and when Mr. Holder follows suit, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” is fresh and lively. Like Mr. Wolfe, but from an underdog’s point of view, he joyfully punctures the raptures of church ladies (who carefully practice those raptures at home) and the pretensions of “uppity fools.” The shock is in who those “uppity fools” are. Dismissing the Freedom Riders, Tony clucks: “Educated Negros will find anything to be riled up about.”

For him, the dream of equality looks too expensive — or at any rate too inconvenient. For Evelyn, too: She is still angry about the recent civil rights boycott that prevented her from buying the Easter dress she wanted. Even for Sally-Mae and Bowzie, change may cost more than they bargained for; the thing that’s “too heavy for your pocket” in the play’s title is hope.

It’s bracing to experience this reverse and sometimes subversive angle on the great good cause of our time. But when Mr. Holder gets too earnest about it, the play bogs down. The second act, which traces the consequences of Bowzie’s decision, depends too heavily on plot turns that don’t make sense, back stories belatedly jimmied into place and short scenes filled with letters read aloud.

In the process, the characters revert to stereotypes, particularly the kind in which black men do black women wrong, and black women turn into fire-breathing dragons. As none of this matches what we’ve learned about them previously, we lose faith in the storytelling. I felt that perhaps Mr. Holder did too: The denouement unties nothing and the ending is a shrug.

That’s a shame because this is, intermittently, a fine production, directed with verve by Margot Bordelon and handsomely designed for the Underground’s difficult space. (The lighting, by Jiyoun Chang, is especially impressive, given the low ceilings.) I also enjoyed the work of the cast — at least until, in the more melodramatic moments, it came to feel like work. Even then the actors managed to get their mouths around Mr. Holder’s ripe country patois and to sound convincingly like people who came from the same place.

If only that place weren’t so often other plays.

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